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  •   Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro Discussion:
    What's Inside Your Computer?

    Friday, February 26, 1999

    Rob Pegoraro Rob Pegoraro began writing about the Internet for The Post back in 1994, which meant he had a Web page up before the Post did (the quality of it was another matter entirely).

    A few gray hairs, multiple trade shows and several bottles of Advil later, he became editor of Fast Forward in September 1997. There, he reports on, reviews, and often yells at home computers, Web sites, Internet providers, video games and other things that beep.

    This week's discussion topic: What's inside your computer? Intel, after imprinting the Pentium brand name on everyone's brain, is rolling out its new Pentium III processor.

    How important is to buy the "right" processor? How much benefit can you actually get out of a faster chip? For background, read this week's Fast Forward and past chats with Pegoraro.

    Read the transcript from Friday's discussion, when Pegoraro discussed "computer guts" and other tech topics.


    ft. myer heights, va: Everytime a big new Intel chip comes out I read reviews saying "it's not that big a deal....you can get good computing power for a better price with the current chips...." but obviously most of these chips are a big deal as they push developers and computer makers to change the market. If I got a new computer now I would pay for the Pentium III because in a year that's all that people are going to get. Yes I'll pay more now but that's the way it is in the computer bix. If I'm looking for a short-term bargain I'll by a II, yes, but for most people looking to own something for a while don't you think they should get the III?

    Rob Pegoraro: Hello again, and welcome back to the biweekly FFWD gab session. Today's Fast Forward page features a look at Intel's new Pentium III processor, so we'll start off with a question or two on that news item. As ever, you're also welcome to pick my brain on any computer/consumer electronics question that comes to mind.

    On to our first question...

    No. The improvements the P III offers for non-enhanced software are fairly marginal. Now if we're talking about software that has been recoded to take advantage of the new "SIMD" instruction set (basically, a sort of shorthand to accelerate graphics performance, which your programs have to learn before they can work faster), you will see a speed boost. But that's a small set of programs, mostly games--and many users never spend much time with those at all.

    For the bread-and-butter work of computing--word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, personal finance--even a "slow" (350 MHz) P II is overkill. The marketing droids at Intel may try to tell you that a lot of Web sites will somehow be P III-enhanced, but, frankly, that's a crock (they said the exact same thing about the MMX enhancements to the Pentium). Don't let the PR blitz goad you into buying stuff you don't need... otherwise, you'll wind up paying an upgrade tax to Intel every 18 months.


    Columbia, Md: What is the likely public and private impact of FCC's sudden curious interest in the internet?

    Rob Pegoraro: "Sudden, curious"? I don't see that. (This question, I think, is about the Federal Communications Commission's recent ruling that calls from home users to their Internet providers can technically be considered long-distance, since the data involved normally goes across huge distances as it snowshoes its way across the Net.)

    From what I've read (bear in mind that I'm not the Post's telecom guru--that would be my colleague Mike Mills in Financial), the actual impact of this ruling will be negligible. Phone companies might hike the rates they charge Internet providers at the next contract renegotiation, but we're never going to switch to per-minute charges the way it's done in Europe. Any phone company exec who even proposed this idea would be publicly strangled by Congress, the FCC, consumers and the media.


    Arlington, VA: I heard at last year's dev conference that Apple was going to come out with a portable iMac with G3 guts. Know anything about it?

    Rob Pegoraro: The people from Apple have been talking about this creation for a *long* time--they know they don't have a consumer-priced laptop and that they're losing sales as a result. Haven't heard much in the way of actual specs or shipping dates for this so-called P1 machine (check out http://www.macosrumors.com for possibly true gossip on it) but the idea of something with the iMac's style and a nice fast G3 processor running inside sounds appetizing to me. So when will it arrive? I dunno, but they'd be nuts not to have it in stores before back-to-school shopping season.


    Hobbitation, The Shire: Hi Rob 2 questions
    Have the chicks started flocking to you when you pull out your palmpilot on a date (if you go on them...)
    On a more serious not, I'm looking at getting a Gateway 400 MHZ PII, but am debating home much ram. What is really nessary these days 64MB, 96, 128?

    Rob Pegoraro: I have a very good idea who asked this question--Mike (or should I say Frodo), you're being way too obvious :)

    But anyway, our inquiring soul here raises an excellent point--the amount of memory in a computer can make a much bigger difference in performance than a few more MHz. Bottom line, Win 98 is intolerably pokey with only 32 megabytes of RAM... which is why almost all Win 98 boxes ship with 64 megs of RAM under the hood. If you can step up to 96, that's not that bad of an idea, but whatever you do, *make sure the machine has available slots for more RAM.* The piece-of-junk Sony I reviewed for November's home-computer guide had both slots already taken up, meaning that you'd have to throw away $70 worth of RAM to add anything to it.


    washington, dcr. washington DC: I'd really like an LCD display for my home monitor. I have a 15" CRT which takes up too much of my limited desk space. Any comments?

    Rob Pegoraro: Sure--did you just have a good weekend in Atlantic City? LCD monitors (basically, deskbound versions of the screens you see on laptops) look cool as heck, but they also cost several arms and legs. Don't count on paying much less than $850 (best-case scenario) for a 15-inch display. By contrast, you can pick up very nice 17-inch monitors for $400 or so.

    The other thing to do, though, is shop diligently. LCD screens aren't commodities like regular monitors; you should read up on the reviews and look at each monitor carefully before buying. Keep in mind that you interact with the monitor much more directly than, say, with the processors you hear so much more about in the ads.


    Falls Church, VA: I've read Fast Forward for some time now, and it's my opinion that you lean towards the Mac/Apple side of the house. Please confirm or deny.

    Rob Pegoraro: I've been accused of leaning towards both sides at one time or another (wanna see the e-mail I got after the column I wrote slamming Apple for strangling the Mac clone business?). It's true that we put out the section on Macs and that I own one at home myself. But I also spend a lot of times on PCs, where--despite a clearly less elegant user interface--I can't help but notice that things cost less and you have many fewer crashes (although the odds of a crash resulting in catastrophic damage are higher on the Windows side of the fence). I also know that both mainstream platforms have a long way to go in speed, simplicity and stability compared to, say, the Palm OS, the Be OS or Linux.

    That reply evasive enough for you?


    balt. md: my friend's packard bell hard drive is full of unwanted junk that he says he didn't put there...that it can't even print from the screen something he sees on the internet. how to fix? some software?

    Rob Pegoraro: We ran an article on how to weed your hard drive of unneeded junk in last month's pullout section: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/tech/janpullout/clue.htm . Basically, your friend should see what can be yanked out with the Add/Remove Programs control panel (older programs may not be too cooperative in this regard); buying an uninstaller app might help. I'm not sure why he can't print out Web pages, though--that's odd. Maybe try installing the latest version of whatever browser he uses? Or he could always try (ick) reinstalling Windows...


    Wilmington, DE: With prices plunging on CD Write and re-write, would you suggest that these be used as backup devices in contrast to tapes and other items on the market?

    Rob Pegoraro: I've been price-shopping in that department myself. I don't recommend CD-R drives, which can write but can't erase data on a disc, for backing up your daily data. *But* they are a good, cheap choice for making archive copies of your stuff. They're also a good move in that the discs you burn on a CD-R drive can be read by just about any other CD-ROM drive (or audio CD player, if you want to cook up some mix CDs).

    CD-RW costs a bit more ($250 and up), but can be used for daily backup. But you probably can't use your CD-RW discs (maybe $15 to $17 each) on other computers (you can still burn CD-Rs on a CD-RW drive, though, if that's not too many abbreviations per sentence). If you don't have a Zip drive or something like that, you might as well go for the CD-RW...


    WDC: How do you choose which software to review? I'd love it if you could do less games and more consumer Web and DTP stuff. Or is your audience more oriented towards games?

    Rob Pegoraro: Far as I can tell, the FFWD readership is split evenly between those who like games and those who don't care at all. We try to take care of all four of these readers in terms of what we review and what we cover in our pullout sections. I know that the balance tilts towards games in the holiday season--that's when everybody scrambles to get stuff in stores in time for the pre-Xmas rush. Now, though, we're doing less games coverage and more utilities and personal-creativity stuff.



    Sterling, VA: Hey Rob,

    How will the launch of Internet2 affect the rest of us? Is it a proving ground for the Internet of the future?

    Rob Pegoraro: Not likely to affect us much at all, Sterling. The only way the Internet is going to get much better for home users is if cheap, fast Internet connections become widely available. That means cable modems and ADSL (a high-speed digital reworking of regular phone lines) need to get cheaper and become more widely available. That's happening, but at a ridiculously slow pace, considering how long we've been hearing about this stuff.

    My own suggestion for speeding up the perceived speed of your Internet connection: Park the Weekend section next to the computer. Those little condensed movie reviews help take up the downtime you have to suffer through as each page crawls onto your screen.


    Washington, DC: I notice that Zoe Lofgren and one of her colleagues is reintroducing a bill to lift restrictions on cryptography key-size limits. How feasible do you think their effort is and is it a worthwhile pursuit of legislative effort? In other words, do the dangers of paedophiles and organized crime outweigh the need for cruptographic privacy, or is that just the government's smokescreen?

    Rob Pegoraro: Emotional issue here. For the uninitiated, this debate is about what levels of encryption you're allowed to export out of the U.S. Current law, IIRC says anything stronger than 56-bit encryption is illegal to export, while everything is legit for domestic use. (This is why, if you download a 128-bit, strong-encryption version of a Web browser, you have to fill out an onscreen form saying you're a U.S. citizen and all that).

    Bottom line, though, is that anybody anywhere in the world who wants to use strong encryption in their private life, their business or their criminal enterprise *has had it for a long time.* I mean, it's not like we're talking about smugging a nuke out of the country--a floppy disk will do. Personally, I would like the people making these policies to realize this fact before they go about deciding what software you can and can't export.


    Washington: What *is* Internet 2?

    Rob Pegoraro: Sorry, my bad for throwing around jargon without explaining it first. The Internet2 project is an effort being undertaken by a consortium of universities; the idea is to see what kind of extremely high-speed data links you can set up, and then to experiment with what sorts of applications you can run on these connections. Like the early Internet, Internet2 isn't something you can play with at home--it's still in the white-lab-coat phase of development.


    Pittsburgh, PA: Do you have any insight into what would cause my computer to power off when disconnecting from my modem or when simply in the middle of a program (Write, Communicator e-mail, etc?)

    Rob Pegoraro: You mean, like actually shut down completely? That's weird. And not good--hard drives don't like getting arbitrarily shut down in the middle of things. I'd have somebody check out your computer's power supply--that doesn't sound like the kind of thing that results from software bugs. Replacing a garden-variety power supply (this is a small brick-size metal box inside the computer case) shouldn't cost more than, uh, $40 or so at a computer-supply store.


    bethesda,MD: What is your opinion of linux? and which x-windows do you prefer? Any opinions about Enlightenment?

    Rob Pegoraro: Linux, for the uninitated, is a free operating system for PCs and Macs, developed by a guy named Linus Torvalds. It's related to the Unix operating system your Internet provider probably uses to run its computers; it's extremely powerful and also fiendishly complex.

    I've installed LinuxPPC on the Power Mac I'm typing this on and I've played around with it a little. There's a whole lot going on in this system, but so much of it is not the kind of stuff you can just discover by blundering around (even with the KDE interface installed, which makes Linux look and act moderately like Win 95 or a Mac desktop). It's like sitting in the pilot's seat in the space shuttle's cockpit; you know you can do great things with this, if only if you could figure out which button to push first.



    New York, NY: I find Microsoft's Outlook 97 a BIG (too big) disappointment. Have you worked with it and what is your take?

    Rob Pegoraro: Our reviewer actually liked Outlook 97 when he checked it out last year. (This, BTW, is one of these address book/calendar/to-do list programs). But since we're talking about software that tries to run your life for you, personal taste matters a whole lot. And I suspect that with Outlook, if you like the basic assumptions in the program, it works very well for you--but if you want to tweak things your own way, you really have to struggle to get the program to obey. Microsoft Word is a lot like that, actually...)


    Bethesda, MD: What is a system bus? I have heard alot about it and would like an explanation in layman's terms
    thanks

    Rob Pegoraro: Sure thing. Pretend your computer's processor is the courthouse in Rockville, the hard drive is downtown Bethesda, and the memory is those high-rises around the Grosvenor Metro stop. The system bus is I-270--it's what lets the data go to and from all of the machinery, so to speak, in your computer. (Hopefully your system's bus goes a little faster than 270 in rush hour...)


    Bozeman, MT: I haven't been able to afford a PC until now. Should I get the latest whiz-bang setup, or can I get a really good deal now? I need a PC for the basics: internet, CD ROM stuff, word processing and money management.

    Rob Pegoraro: Howdy, Bozeman... you're in luck. Since you said you're just talking about getting a PC for "the basics," you don't need to worry about getting the latest processor or the fastest 3-D graphics card. (The recipe for long-term computer happiness seems to be not installing any game more complicated than Tetris.) Buy a machine with 64 megs of RAM and at least a 15-inch monitor--and make sure that the manufacturer doesn't charge for tech support calls after the first 90 days. Sounds like the current $1,000-and-change package from Dell, Gateway or Micron (the latter two of which are almost neighbors, eh?) should suffice.

    Well, that's all the time we've got left for today... thanks for stopping by. You can e-mail me directly at rob@twp.com if you've got other questions I didn't get to. Take care...



    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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